Vintage Photography: The People and Cars of the Cornett Family, As Shot by William Gedney in 1964 and 1972

Gedney cars-1024x691

(first posted 4/10/2016)    One of the more remarkable photography collections I’ve stumbled on in recent years is one shot by William Gedney of the extended Cornett family in rural Kentucky. He shot them twice; first in 1964 and then again in 1972. There’s 921 images in total, and a healthy percentage include the cars in their lives, and the struggle to keep them going. These photos are quite a poignant look back in time, when families were large (12 kids in the Cornett family), poverty was rampant, and the drug and obesity crises hadn’t yet set in, among other things. And the men spent a lot of time with their cars.

gedney Cornett family 1964

Here’s the Cornett family, headed by Willie and Vivian, and their 12 children in 1964. Most of the images I’ve selected are from 1972, when the kids are all older, but some are also from 1964.

Gedney 56 ford

The ’55 Ford makes a number of appearances in the 1964 shots; presumably it was the main family car at the time.

Gedney -KY-girls-1024x701

These scenes are a reminder of how simply many Americans still lived in the 60s and 70s, without indoor plumbing and such. It might as well be a third world country, and a very poor one at that.

Gedney fix 1964

The Ford appears to be in need of constant ministrations.

Gedney house and car 1964

Here it’s on “the rack”.

Gedney two chevys 1972

Let’s skip to 1972, as there’s a lot more images and a lot more boys that need wheels, or at least want to have them. The family allegiance seems to have switched over to Chevys.

Gedney KY-boy-under-car

I actually used this and a couple of other shots in a brief look at Gedney’s work back in 2011, but I’ve wanted to go back and share more of his photography.

Gedney 63 chevy boy and man 1972

This kid was probably pretty well versed with basic car mechanics at the time.

Gedney 63 chevy jack

Time to get back out. He has a lot more faith in the bumper jack than I would anymore, but I did plenty of the same back in the day. Literally about the same time. In fact what’s interesting about these shots from 1972 is that they don’t yet reflect the impact of cultural changes that were so rampant at the time, like long hair, which was even starting to be adopted by the, um, other side of the cultural divide. Maybe in another year or two. But it makes these 1972 shots look like they could well be from the early-mid 60s, except for how battered the cars mostly are.

Gedney 57 ford

There were still Fords around to attend to in 1972, like this ’57.

Gedney 60 ford 1972

Or this 1960.

Gedney boy on hood

Or just to lean on.

Gedney 64 chevy beer

But the ’63, ’64 and ’65 Chevy are a common fixture in 1972.

Gedney 409

Here’s a 409 being either installed or removed from the ’65 Chevy.

Gedney barbie 1972

Meanwhile, two girls are playing with their Barbie dolls in the shade of that ’65 Biscayne.

Gedney girl on trunk

While an older girl daydreams on the trunk. About what life post-Barbie will be like?

Gedney boy in trunk 1972

While one of the little guys stands proudly in the trunk.

Gedney starter1-1024x689

Willie Cornett teaching his boys about the finer (or lesser) points of GM starters.

Gedney baby 1972

A loving embrace against a Chevy.

Gedney blowtorch 1972

Exhaust work employing a blow torch.

Gedney bridge

A Mercury among Chevys.

Gedney engine 1972

An engine and transmission being moved either into or out of the Mercury wagon. The hard way.

Gedney Chevy truck

An old Chevy truck getting some needed attention.

Gedney truck brakes 1972

A similar GMC getting what appears to be a brake job. The drill is probably being used to hone the wheel cylinder. I remember that all too well; why did wheel cylinders leak so readily back then, and never in modern times?

Gedney fog truck

The same truck, presumably, broken down in a foggy field.

Gedney girl

And here it is again with a skinny girl. Well, just about everyone is skinny. From today’s vantage point, almost shockingly so.

Gedney lunch 1972

It’s not that they presumably didn’t feed the kids; it’s just that the food and portions where very different then. Cornbread and beans; probably a common meal, washed down with water, not soda. There are also pictures of the kids picking beans in the garden, and girls sewing on treadle sewing machines.

Gedney truck 1972

This time it’s an old IH truck that needs attention.

Gedney flat 1972

Flat tires are a recurring theme. This is a poignant image. That tire looks…not like it should. Hopefully it was just the spare.

Gedney fix flat 1972

An inner tube getting patched.

Gedney honda 1972

A Honda 65 makes an appearance. It will probably be a while yet before the first Japanese cars do.

Gedney honda work 1972

And it too needs attention.

Gedney house and cars 1972

If the cars won’t run, one can always walk.

Gedney revolver 1972

A revolver lays in the foreground.

Gedney tot

This tot doesn’t want to be left out of the action. Given the ’55 Ford, this shot is probably from 1964.

Gedney ford engine 1972

This is no Chevy.

Gedney Mopar

Nary a Chrysler product anywhere, except for this old one.

Gedney Valiant

And there’s this Valiant. Can I ever relate to this.

Gedney women

Two girls, again with the ’65 Biscayne. Bonus points if you can identify the car they’re leaning on. The on one the left reminds very much of a girl that I briefly knew when I worked at a gas station in Towson in 1969. Her family, fairly recent arrivals from Appalachia, lived in the old house across the street. She had a crush on me, and she’d come over on a quiet Sunday when I attended the very slow station solo, and we’d make out back in the room off the service bays where the tire changing machine was.

Shew as only about 14 or so. I moved on, but she roped me into taking her to her junior high prom, where she showed me off (I was 17 at the time).

Gedney truck peer 1972

These relatives are Ford lovers.

Gedney young family 1972

The (very) young family and their first car. That’s the same young woman; this might have been her fate if she’s stayed back where she came from.

Gedney two boys

Petting the family Chevys.

Gedney father son

Got to start them young.

Gedney family 1972

Time to say goodbye to the Cornetts. In this final shot, the photographer, William Gedney (front center), has embedded himself with his subjects.

Gedney cigs

Gedney’s work in documenting this family at play, work, fixing their cars or just passing a cigarette is a remarkable undertaking, and it’s well worth the time to peruse the full collection (here), as well as his other collections too, at Duke University’s Library digital collections.